A few years back I was in a health policy and administration class at the University of Nevada, and a recent graduate was presenting a lecture. At one point in her lecture, she talked about stepping into a role at a local hospital and working with a leader at the hospital who openly admitted to her that they were hesitant to work closely with doctors at the hospital because they did not want to be in a position where they were not the smartest person in the room. It is rare that someone opens up like this to any of us, but when someone does open up like this, we can use it as a moment to reflect on what ways we share the same insecurities, fears, habits, or ideas that we try to hide from everyone. In this case, a successful lead executive felt smart and successful, but didn’t want to be around brilliant doctors who may suspect that they were an impostor, someone who was not as smart as they wanted everyone to believe, and as a result not as competent as their job required.
It is easy to understand why this person may have been so afraid of not being seen as the smartest person in the room, but it is dangerous for anyone to believe they are smarter than they are, that they already know it all, and to actively avoid situations where they may encounter something they are not familiar with and don’t understand. Ryan Holiday addresses this issue in his book, Ego is the Enemy, when he writes, “With accomplishment comes a growing pressure to pretend that we know more than we do. To pretend we already know everything. Scientia infla (knowledge puffs up). That’s the worry and the risk-thinking that we’re set and secure, when in reality understanding and mastery is a fluid, continual process.”
Our egos want to preserve a picture of us that presents us in the best possible light. As a result, the more success we achieve, the more likely we are to try to restrict ourselves to our own areas of expertise. Stepping beyond our comfort level, applying ourselves in new and unfamiliar terrains, and taking new chances creates the fearful possibility for the canvass of our perfect life to be torn in half. Rather than striving for more, we try to entrench what we have and protect the perfect presentation of ourselves.
What Holiday continues to write about in his book is that this mindset of self preservation ultimately becomes our ruin. The ego which wants to puff itself up and believe that it knows everything puts us in a place where we can be surpassed and where we fail to grow and adapt to changes around us. Rather than helping us maintain our success, the ego actively helps other people and an evolving world sap success away from us.
What is worse, our ego likely makes us blind to the process. We vindicate our existing knowledge, habits, and self preservation by lying to ourselves about how smart and competent we are. We tell ourselves we already know what we need, we already figured out how to be the best, and we start to believe those lies and tell everyone what we think we already know. Somewhere, deep down, we may know that we are faking it, but we try to hide that from everyone (including ourselves) and make sure we are only in situations where we are the smartest person in the room. We tell ourselves we are great and create a dreamland around us that preserves the ego while sacrificing progress, growth, and sustained excellence. If we truly want to achieve those things in the long run, we must be aware of this tendency and its destructive power and actively move beyond this mindset.